The Cambodia Daily , WEEKEND Saturday, July 18-19, 2004


Chiselling Out A Living

By Nhem Chea Bunly
The Cambodia Daily

kandieng district, Pursat province - From the moment one leaves Pursat town and crosses the wooden bridge over Pursat river, a rattling sound, “pe pok, pe pok,” fills the air.

The sculptors of Banteay Dey and Bandos Sandek villages are hard at work, chiseling marble into animal figurines and Buddha statues that will fill orders or sell in local shops. In both villages marble carving is a family trade.

Pok Sao, 52, who learned from Master Hem Heng in the late 1960s, now trains his 16-year-old son Pok Sophal. The sculptor, who has six children to support, said he makes approximately $200 per month from his work.

Pen Sarath, an 18-year-old student who learned sculpture from a neighbor in 1998, said he carves elephants and lions in his free time to pay for his education.

The carving techniques have been passed on for generations in Pursat province, said Kong Ty, a Banteay Dey sculptor.
“I learned sculpture and painting from Master Suon Chem at the pagoda in the late 1960s,” said the 53-year-old man.
The marble comes from remote quarries in the Cardamom Mountains, about 120 km from Pursat town, and with no road to speak of, marble must be brought back by tractor or buffalo carts, said Keo Rithy, owner of the Marble Sculpture Shop
This is an improvement, Kong Ty added. It used to take three months by elephant.

Since the block of marble will determine the size and shape of the statue to be carved, it has to be selected and extracted from the quarry with care and precision, said Keo Rithy.

Hun Sophin, owner of the Pursat Province Marble Sculpture shop in Banteay Dey, said she started carving marble 13 years ago. Today, she has eight sculptors and several trainees working for her.

“We make a decent living, but not a great deal of profit. As artists, we care more about the quality of our work and our reputation,” she said.

The marble quarries are government property and people extracting stone must pay a royalty to the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, said Mao San, director of the ministry’s provincial office in Pursat.

Rates per block of marble vary according to size—$30 for a 30-by-30-cm block, $50 for up to 50 cm, and $80 for larger ones, he said. 

For ministry employees to get to quarries of good-quality marble, it takes two days to cross numerous mountains by truck or tractor, Mao San said.

“We also try to make people understand the value of marble, enlist them in preserving it and not using gun powder to extract it,” Mao San said.

Sculptors in Pursat have accumulated a wealth of traditional skills and work with marble of diverse colors, said Mao Sorphorn, provincial director for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

“We would like to open a sculpture school in Pursat, and bring in the best professors to teach the basics of sculpting, as well as pre-Angkorian, Angkorian and post-Angkorian styles. Unfortunately, we don’t have the budget for this,” he said.